Every year the rules, the very definition of media evolves. As individuals and households continue to cut the cable cord, streaming services and studios are reinventing the nature of content. The lines between movies, television shows, and mini-series continue to blur and morph into something new and exciting. If competition breeds higher quality, the race for eyeballs is resulting in the most unique and challenging of properties. Adaptations that in the past would have been epic movies are now languid series, able to explore characters fully and attract the biggest talents both in front and behind the scenes. Dramas that used to follow a strict hour-long running time now bloat over that target or shrink to thirty minutes or less, all to serve the story. It’s truly impossible for one person to absorb it all, but what follows is an attempt to whittle a list down to the best that the various platforms have to offer:
Showtime has always been a source for high quality guilty pleasure fare, but year over year, can anything touch the sheer audacity of this show? A program born out of society’s simultaneous fascination with the super wealthy and a desire to see them punished, ‘Billions’ has always featured big performances by its two leads, Paul Giamatti’s District Attorney of NY, Chuck Rhodes, and his personal Moby Dick, Damian Lewis’s hedge fund kingpin, Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod. This past season conceded more space to its talented (and growing) supporting cast who took the ‘go big or go home’ baton, and the writing, courtesy of and overseen by creators Brian Koppelman, David Levien, and Andrew Ross Sorkin continued to produce some of the most hilarious, pop-referential lines of anything on cable. As in seasons past, the show flipped the script halfway through, bringing the adversaries together, begging the question if it can maintain its breakneck pacing or fall into a trap of reliable comfort, but it will likely always titillate . . .
After finding massive success with last year’s star-driven popular novel adaptation, ‘Big Little Lies,’ HBO went for it again with Amy Adams and Gillian Flynn (‘Gone Girl’) for the alcohol soaked Southern gothic, ‘Sharp Objects’. Taking a page out of the ‘Lies’ playbook it also booked Jean-Marc Vallee (‘Dallas Buyers Club’) to direct all eight episodes, well-utilizing his hazy, dreamlike style to capture the perpetually imbibing lead character, Adams’ scarred (physically and mentally) Camille Preaker. Her return to her fully realized fictional Missouri hometown to report on a series of grisly teen girl murders forces her to confront deep psychological stresses and leads her to an inadvertent investigation into her family’s roots in the town’s sordid history. More than a whodunnit (although the mystery is compelling), the maxi-series served as a deep study of a flawed character and her foundations within a tainted setting . . .
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE
As Netflix is want to do, sometimes they don’t realize what they have until it airs. Like ‘Stranger Things’ before it, ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ dropped this past October to minimal marketing and critical fanfare, but it almost immediately grabbed the attention of both the streaming populace and the critics. Every episode cultivated and helmed by Netflix horror director of choice Mike Flanagan (‘Hush’, ‘Gerald’s Game’), this maxi-series juggled the overall creep factor, effective jump-scares, and family drama equally well. His sure hand guided his familiar acting troupe (Carla Gugino, Elizabeth Reaser, Kate Siegel, and Henry Thomas to name a few) and his color-saturated palate drew an audience into a visually stunning, gratifying mystery. Each episode jumped back and forth in time, initially focused on one member of the Crain family, then bringing them together in a tour de force, single tracking shot episode, showing their interactions with the titular old mansion that their parents were flipping in the 90s, and its far-reaching effects on them as adults, at once divided and united in tragedy . . .
Some shows draw an audience in with an intriguing story, some are character studies, and some are just plain addictive, but some shows are just a great hang. Not much happens in AMC’s ‘Lodge 49’ but for the characters, everything happens, and because their personalities are so well-drawn and acted, their situations so clearly outlined, it is impossible to get them out of mind. Dud (played charismatically by Wyatt Russell, displaying screen attributes that harken to both of his parents, Kurt and Goldie Hawn) is initially portrayed as a Californian lay-about type in the hazy noir mold of ‘The Big Lebowski’s Dude or a Thomas Pynchon character, but as the show continues, layers of his good-nature begin to reveal themselves. Rooting for him is never in question, although equal time is spent with his sister Liz (a wonderfully sardonic breakout performance by Sonya Cassidy) and the show’s MVP, veteran character actor Brent Jennings as Ernie Fontaine, a career plumbing salesman on the other side of middle age, whom Dud’s story inexorably links to (equal parts annoyingly and endearingly for Ernie), when he finds a ring on the beach belonging to the alchemical fraternal order of the Lynx (the title refers to LA’s chapter). It may not sound like much, but this show may actually contain the secrets of the universe . . . or maybe not . . .
Luckily HBO had the foresight to trust in Bill Hader. What seemed on the surface like a winky vanity project from the former SNL feature player, an Army vet turned assassin who becomes obsessed with becoming an actor, ‘Barry’ ended up a little miracle of darkly comic tragedy. The show was unafraid to go to extremes, both in its depiction of violence and its takedown of actorly pretentiousness. What truly surprised was the show’s ability to also imbue a real pathos in almost every character on screen, no matter how despicable, whiny, egotistical, or disturbed, as well as Hader’s tendency to concede the floor to the various strong supporting players including Sarah Goldberg’s acting student, Sally, Paula Newsome’s detective, and of course Henry Winkler’s career-best role as acting guru/bit player Gene Cousineau. Kudos also go to the brilliant directing choices of Hader himself, co-creator Alec Berg, and the visionary Hiro Murai (of ‘Atlanta’ fame), all who contributed to the overall unique feel of a show that all at once highlighted the sun-drenched pull of the possibility of fame, the everyday drudgery of occupational life, the trials of romantic complication, and extreme bouts of verite violence . . .
Apparently, 2018 was the year of the assassin, as in addition to ‘Barry’, another unique take on the cat-and-mouse game made this list. BBC’s ‘Killing Eve’ featured a quirky hired-killer character (breakout wonder Jodie Comer as Villanelle), an obsessed and dogged pursuer (longtime wonder Sandra Oh as Eve), and an engaging balance of comedy, violence, and the banal. As the creator of this sordid adapted tale (it’s based on the Villanelle series of novellas by Luke Jennings), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (‘Fleabag’, ‘Solo – A Star Wars Story’s L3-37) is the driving force behind this series, hers’ a voice signified by caustic wit and a uniquely female perspective that Oh and Comer are able to channel beautifully. Eve and Villanelle are pro- and antagonists never before seen, so singular in their drive and stubbornness to compromise, both to their success and detriment. The first few episodes of ‘Killing Eve’ are truly exhilarating television, a momentum that starts to fade a bit as the show settles, yet it remains excellent right through to a wild finale. Like ‘Barry’ it remains to be seen how these shows can sustain multiple seasons centered around these characters, but this first season was truly something to see . . .
When arguably the biggest movie star on the planet, Julia Roberts, teamed up with the creator of ‘Mr.Robot’, Sam Esmail, to adapt a scripted podcast that originally starred Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, and David Schwimmer, and it wasn’t for HBO. Produced and released to stream by Amazon, ‘Homecoming’ is an innovative, captivating ode to classic conspiracy dramas in bite size segments that unfold over two separate timelines. Roberts gives a restrained, soulful performance as counselor Heidi, opposite a charismatic, engaging Stephan James as returning soldier Walter, Shea Whigham as a dogged, nerdily stoic investigator, and a wildly bombastic, enervating Bobby Cannavale as her boss Collin, perfectly portraying the embodiment of corporate slime. Being a series exclusively directed by Esmail, the joy of viewing the show lies in the wild and interesting visual choices he makes – while the narrative may drive the characters, its his framing, musical cues (all familiar scores from film), and timing that make this something very special . . .
One of, if not the best shows on Netflix, ‘Glow’, the 1980s-set saga of an all-female wrestling start-up league, continued to provoke, surprise, and endear, all in equal measure. In its second season, its huge, stellar ensemble cast got even more opportunity to shine, especially in a stand-out middle episode centered on motherhood. It featured real life wrestler, Kia Stevens, as she grappled with both the shame and ownership of her racially stereotyped character, ‘Wellfare Queen’, and it contained a particularly charged turn by Betty Gilpin’s Debbie, as she moved forward after divorce by stripping her shared spousal identity. While the show had plenty of these kinds of memorable turns (a late show-within-a-show episode was a note-perfect illustration of the low budget video-driven times), it lives and dies by the core relationship of its trifecta – Alison Brie’s geekily ambitious Ruth, Marc Maron’s jaded, now weirdly inspired director Sam, and the aforementioned Gilpin, giving a seismically complex performance. Creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch have really taken their experience with a sprawling female cast on ‘Orange is the New Black’ to the next level, creating a playground for acting that an audience is eager to watch, fully onboard for the ride . . .
Well this show certainly took a turn and found its groove to become one of the best on television. Initially, in the Adam McKay directed pilot, it seemed impossible to want to follow the trials and tribulations of the truly despicable Roy family, whose media mogul patriarch Logan (an excoriating Brian Cox, just chewing lines) falls ill, leaving his third wife and children to vie for control of his Fox-like empire. Each individual is fatally flawed in some way, with minimal redeeming qualities, but as played by Kiernan Culkin, Alan Ruck, Sarah Snook, and Jeremy Strong (in one of the most unconventional, fully committed, weirdly compelling co-lead performances in recent memory), as well as various spot-on tertiary players (shout-out to unlikely duo, Matthew Macfadyen’s Tom and Nicholas Braun’s Cousin Greg) feeding off the family, it becomes increasingly difficult not to be mesmerized as the story progresses. The driving nature of the show is no doubt due to its design, a clear choice by creator Jesse Armstrong (writer for ‘In the Loop’, ‘Veep’) to focus each of the season’s ten episodes on an event that brings most, if not all, of the players to the same fully drawn locations, whether it be a holiday, a charity ball, a wedding, a bachelor party, or in a truly bravura episode, a ranch retreat that’s more a family therapy session. A writing tour de force, the team behind this show have crafted a series of plays disguised as prestige HBO . . .
THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL
Espionage master author John le Carre adaptations are an unenviable task for which the joint production team of BBC/AMC seem to be increasingly up for. Following 2016’s stellar Suzanne Bier directed miniseries ‘The Night Manager’, this past year’s sights were set on ‘The Little Drummer Girl’, a project they were somehow able to get visual master Chan-wook Park (‘Oldboy’, ‘The Handmaiden’) to helm the whole six hour affair. Unlike ‘The Night Manager’, the filmmakers (yes this tv mini is a FILM) wisely opted to keep ‘Drummer’ rooted in its original late 70s European setting (the novel was published in 1983), allowing Park to accentuate a striking style and color palette without it being unnatural. This is a complex Israeli intelligence narrative that requires an attention to detail and a willingness to follow its seemingly meandering spy craft plot, but through its sumptuous visuals and riveting performances by Alexander Skarsgard (‘True Blood’), Michael Shannon, and an outstanding, star-making turn by Florence Pugh, it’s an infinitely rewarding experience . . .
ONE (UNDISPUTED CHAMPION)
ATLANTA ROBBIN SEASON
‘Atlanta’ premiered in 2016 to almost universal rapturous critical praise for good reason. Its blend of situational comedy and biting cultural commentary cemented its debut season as the best new series to watch, garnering recognition for its cast, crew, and driving creative force, star Donald Glover. To follow up the magic of this insanely entertaining and wildly careening set of ten episodes with something even more amazing would seem fraught with danger, but there was no sophomore slump to the second season of ‘Atlanta’, dubbed ‘Robbin’ Season’. In fact, this set of eleven episodes is a collection of transcendent vignettes with an overarching theme of the perils of black fame in America, and one of the greatest series to ever grace the small screen. Period stop.
Ostensibly, the series follows the meandering exploits of Donald Glover’s Earn as he attempts to manage the burgeoning rap career of his cousin Al, ne Paper Boi, expertly personified by Bryan Tyree Henry. They interact with various unique characters in their daily lives, most notably roommate Darius (the incomparable Lakeith Stanfield) and Van (Zazie Beetz, breaking big), Earn’s sometime paramour, and the mother of their young daughter. For ‘Atlanta’ the ‘plot’ is secondary to the long, strange trip these characters are on, at times together, in subgroups, and increasingly this season, all on their own. The second season also features an incredible series of guest stars, from stand-up comedians Katt Williams in the premiere and Robert Powell as Bibby in the stand-out Al bottle episode, ‘Barbershop’, to an unrecognizable Glover himself, buried under makeup and prosthetics as the reclusive musician Teddy Perkins, in what might be the most unnerving and riveting commercial-free episodes in television history. It’s a blatant send-up of Michael Jackson, a towering figure of both communal pride and head-scratching eccentricity, that resulted in truly insane, riveting, and terrifying event television that had social media on edge.
Whether showcasing a couple’s struggles at a surreal German festival, trying to score a meet-and-greet at Drake’s house during a girls night out, or ushering Al (enough can’t be said about Henry’s performance in this series, truly the best actor working on tv) to a streaming service meeting, a low key college performance, and a European tour, Glover and his increasingly incredible cast and crew are redefining small screen art and entertainment. Director Hiro Murai, who also lensed Glover’s alter ego Childish Gambino’s incendiary music video, ‘This is America’, has aided Glover in creating the unique visual language of ‘Atlanta’, but this season also featured contributions from actress/director Amy Seimetz, who lends a welcome female sensibility to episodes focused on Van and company. So much can be said about this brilliant series that has rightfully catapulted Glover to the heights of critical praise, which will remain no matter if he continues with another season in the future or not. Regardless, these twenty-one episodes will forever stand as some of the best material the medium has yet to offer . . .
**** P.S. While the current season of ‘The Good Place’ hasn’t quite measured up to the relative brilliance and watch-ability of its previous two seasons, special recognition must be paid to D’Arcy Carden’s stratospheric performance in the stand-out episode “Janet(s)’ just before the show’s short winter hiatus, as she not only perfectly channeled each one of her costars’ characters and performances, but also supplied an emotional climax for the show without them even being on screen . . .